James opened the second leg of their Living In Extraordinary Times tour with a first non-festival visit to Margate since when they supported The Smiths almost thirty-four years ago to the date. A challenging setlist heavy on new material and rarely played tracks from their back catalogue stretched the crowds to their limit until they signed off with a barrage of hits towards the end.
For this tour James have taken on the novel idea of supporting themselves by playing a six-song acoustic set in the traditional opener slot. Geography means they haven't had the time to rehearse for weeks as most bands of eight people would need to do for such an undertaking, particularly given their choice of setlist, but James have a reputation for flying by the seat of their pants and not viewing something not working as a failure but as an attempt at something special.
"What the fuck were we thinking?" Tim asks no one in particular as he explains what they're doing, later joking that they're going down like a bad support band and making a request for people to stop talking and to listen to All I'm Saying otherwise they wouldn't play it because of the deeply personal nature of the lyrics about the death of his friend Gabrielle Roth. Saul is more direct, threatening to turn up at someone's house whilst they're watching Gogglebox and talk all the way through it. But in the main, the Margate crowd got what they were trying to do with the opening set and respected it.
For the hardcore fans the setlist choice was a treat. Hello had been a forgotten and not particularly missed album track from Millionaires until it was reinvented for the orchestra tour in 2011 and it's obviously retained favour with the band and the beautifully stripped down version is far from the fussy production of the recorded version. With Mark on piano and Saul on violin and Andy providing backing vocals, it feels reinvigorated and achingly poignant. It's followed by Broken By The Hurt, from the Better Than That EP, which Tim tells us should have been on his Extraordinary Times double album, explaining the song isn't just about hurt, but being broken open and something positive coming from it. Again, Saul and Andy's backing vocals add a lift and a greater punch to it than on record.
Quicken The Dead, one of the highlights from La Petite Mort, is perfectly suited to this treatment, its rippling hook line delivered by Mark and the stripped down nature really accentuating every single sinew of emotion in Tim's voice. It's followed by another curio, Maria, never properly released as the Wah Wah version contained Larry on lead vocals, despite it being championed as a potential single when first revealed on their Seven tour in 1992. It's always remained a fan favourite from that period of James history. With Dave and Chloe doubling up on drums, Adrian on banjo and Mark on accordion, it has a real energetic folk feel to it that makes you understand why it never made it onto Laid. Tim jokes at the end that if you haven't been to a party like the one described in the song you haven't been out enough.
All I'm Saying is as mentioned earlier a very emotionally charged song and the subtle changes to the arrangements here, particularly with the cello and violin appearing high in the mix, don't dim that and you can hear in Tim's voice, which waivers with emotion at points, just how much it does mean to him. They finish the acoustic section with I Wanna Go Home, which starts a section of hand-clapping from the audience,
Tim had alluded to the fact on Twitter that they were going to take more risks with the setlist on this tour because of the smaller venues and the fact that the tour advertising was very clear that it was going to be material from Living In Extraordinary Times. They keep good to that promise although their opening gambit is a look backwards to Johnny Yen from their debut Stutter - still recognisable as the song that should have probably launched that album and them to bigger things as their stubbornness refused to let them take the obvious route. It's fitting that Tim now references the likes of Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison whose demise matched the personalities of the Iggy Pop created character of the song's title.
Tim had mentioned in the soundcheck that he had hurt his back and his movements are more restricted than normal (normal being crowdsurfing and his own unique style of controlled dancing that many try to mimic in the crowd). On What's It All About, the first of a run of five songs out of six (the other being La Petite Mort's Interrogation) before we get a "hit" single, he resists the itch and urge to launch himself and settles on moving his head from side to side vigorously, as if he's had the rest of him frozen to the spot. He tells us mischievously at the end of the song that it's only the third gig he's done in thirty five years where he's taken drugs, to huge cheers, until he admits that the drugs in question were nurofen and codeine.
Picture Of This Place is a highlight of the night, a magnificently confident song full of rigid structures around which the band's desire to improvise can flow. As it ends with Tim and Andy on the walkway at the front, Tim singing the "root toot toot toot toot" line back to Andy before explaining it's the only line from the original jam that remains even though back then it was a genuine instruction to play at that point. Leviathan is a glorious song about love "before they drop the bomb" inspired by the claim North Korea could hit Tim's home in California with a nuclear bomb. The smoke swirling around the top of the stage and the lights creating an almost apocalyptic scene as the music stops and then crashes back in. They move away from Living In Extraordinary Times, but only back two albums for Interrogation, another song whose taut, tight, tense mood is accentuated by the smoke and lights, and which, although curtailed as it has often been live, shows the side of James that those turning up to bounce through a heritage greatest hits set won't have expected.
To be the fair to the Margate crowd, those around us at least, they stay focused. Extraordinary Times is a crunching challenging song, the sort that would have the world falling at their feet crying resurrection if U2 were ever to deliver something as majestic and Heads, the band and audience's hand claps creating the feeling that we're marching together, more intense by the second, into battle. Once again, whoever's doing the lights, perfectly captures the mood and the moments in this song.
We're now thirteen songs into the night and it feels like there's a big release of pressure as the opening bars of Tomorrow ring around the hall and those round the fringes throw themselves forward. It's interesting to note here that even one of their best known and loved songs has to battle to sonically have the same energy of what's gone before in the electric set which is testament to how James are moving further away from the heritage that bands of their generation seem every more desperate to cling to for financial reasons that destroys their creativity in the process.
As if to underline that exact point, Tomorrow isn't followed by a flurry of hits, but by a b-side (although to call it that is doing it a massive disservice) Busted and one of Living In Extraordinary Times' more sublime moments How Hard The Day where Chloe, Saul and Andy's backing vocals once again lift and shed more light on the songs.
An almost rickety keyboard line strikes up, unrecognisable for a few seconds, before Tim starts "I sing myself to sleep...." and the place erupts. This is no bombastic Sit Down by numbers though, the crowd wait for everyone to pile in with the big guns in the chorus but they don't. The power that would generate is replaced by a more intimate message of solidarity and coming together - "from the sublime to the ridiculous" as Tim describes it.
"This is a song we wrote in 1984" Tim tells us before realising that Saul doesn't have a drum kit to play Stutter. Out on the makeshift walkway he decides that he's going to close his eyes, place the mic in front of someone on the barrier and ask them what they want to hear, once he stops two thousand people baying for their favourite. The choice is Come Home and he jokes that he's relieved that some trainspotter didn't choose "the one about mosquitos from 1987." Desperate to make a connection with the crowd, he ends up amongst us, taking his life into his own hands without security, but allowed to move through us to get closer whilst the band are lit up in glorious red lights and strobes. They finish the main set with Born Of Frustration, its calling card trumpet line feeling like a call to arms.
The encore starts with Many Faces, a song of love and unity, and whilst the crowd don't take on its "there's only one human race, many faces, everybody belongs here" refrain and sing it back, you sense it's still hit chords out there. Sound has been rested a lot recently and, like the best James songs, always comes back invigorated with new ideas. It's Andy's turn to come out amongst us, almost duelling with Tim's "mah-bah-ooh" as he looks down from the edge of the walkway to his bandmate down below amongst us. Strangely, like never before, that becomes the evening's singalong. They leave us with a hard-edged rocked-up Getting Away With It (All Messed Up), an enduring favourite of James crowds everywhere despite having a much lower profile than many songs from the decade that preceded it and the band's split in 2001.
In many ways it's a fitting end to a night where James did just that. One look at the boards of the Winter Gardens suggests it's a town that's starved of bands that come to challenge rather than to play the performing greatest hits seal, but James seem even more determined to do that despite, apart from one chaotic festival in a park seven years ago, never having been round these parts. The set is a risky one, one that could have alienated the crowd (and there were a few moans for the lack of Say Something, Waltzing Along, Destiny Calling and She's A Star on the way out), but it's one that demonstrates that James are still refusing to become their own tribute act that even bands that have had their heyday after James have turned into to keep the money rolling in. James are an extraordinary band living in extraordinary times.
James played an acoustic set of Hello, Broken By The Hurt, Quicken The Dead, Maria, All I'm Saying and I Wanna Go Home followed by an electric set of Johnny Yen, What's It All About, Picture Of This Place, Leviathan, Interrogation, Extraordinary Times, Heads, Tomorrow, Busted, How Hard The Day, Sit Down, Come Home, Born Of Frustration, Many Faces, Sound and Getting Away With It (All Messed Up).
James' tour continues at Bath Forum (7), London Royal Albert Hall (9), Cambridge Corn Exchange (11), Nottingham Royal Centre (12), Southampton O2 Guildhall (14), Stoke Victoria Halls (15), Newcastle City Hall (17), Edinburgh Usher Hall (18), Carlisle Sands Centre (20), Birmingham O2 Academy (21) and Hull Bonus Arena (22) before they play Porto Coliseum (April 3), Lisbon Coliseum (4), Thessaloniki Fix Factory (June 7), Athens Release Festival (8), Isle Of Wight Festival (14), Manchester Heaton Park (15, supporting Courteeners), Eastnor Castle Lakefest (August 11), Edinburgh Princes Gardens Summer Sessions (15), Doncaster Racecourse (17), Hardwick Live (18) and Knebworth Cool Britannia (31).
James' official website can be found here. They are on Facebook and Twitter. Some of the band - Tim, Andy and Dave - are also on Twitter.
We also run the One Of The Three James archive, the most detailed resource for information about the band, and the site also has a Facebook and Twitter page.
TimBoothLyricADay, whose posts often lead to Tim explaining his thought processes behind the lyrics, can be found on Twitter and Facebook.